Washington Press Club Foundation


Iris Turner Kelso began a successful and varied journalistic career in 1948. She was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi. After her mother died when she was four, Iris was raised by her father, grandparents, and extended family, who played an important role throughout her life. Iris Turner graduated from Randolph-Macon Women's College in Virginia, where she majored in English. She then returned to her home state to begin her first job writing for the Hattiesburg (Mississippi) American. As a young reporter, she covered small town news, from luncheon club meetings to fires, but it was the courthouse that rekindled her curiosity about politics, stimulating a lifetime personal and professional pursuit of political news.

In 1951, Iris Turner moved to New Orleans to become a general reporter with the New Orleans States. Her assignments included school reporting, celebrity interviews, and "sob-sister" specialties. Her political inclinations led her to City Hall which she began covering in 1954. For the next four decades, her career centered around local, state, and national politics. Through these years, she blended a commitment to her community with a fascination for the political world. She reported for the New Orleans States-Item in the weekly magazine Figaro, and later in her regular Times-Picayune columns. She began conducting political interviews with the 1959 legislative session of the Louisiana State Legislature. That year she also covered the story of Governor Earl Long's release from a mental institution, an episode that drew national attention. She also covered political conventions and campaigns.

In 1960, Iris Turner married Robert Kelso, a "re-write" man for the New Orleans States-Item. As journalists they shared many common interests and they enjoyed a happy marriage. Robert Kelso died in 1972. Iris Kelso has remained very close to her sister, nieces, nephews, and to her extended Mississippi family, who have often provided materials for her stories.

Iris Turner Kelso did not confine her career to the print media. After covering the civil rights movement and the integration of New Orleans' schools, she felt compelled to become more personally involved in social reform. From 1965 to 1967, she worked for Total Community Action, a federal poverty program. In 1967, she became a reporter and commentator for WDSU-TV, covering Louisiana and national politics. As a television reporter she won a Peabody Award for an investigative series on city finances. In 1978, she began to report for Figaro, but continued to broadcast a weekly political commentary show called "Saturday Politics." While at Figaro, she began writing a popular series of stories about her family and its history, among them her cousin Turner Catledge, who spent a distinguished career as managing editor of the New York Times.

As a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Kelso has enjoyed a license to write as she pleases. Her columns have dealt with a myriad of topics, including David Duke, teenage pregnancy, abortion, women politicians, the environment, the Neshoba County Fair, and her family.

Anne G. Ritchie
February 1993

Iris Turner Kelso
New Orleans, Louisiana
Extended Biography

Family Background:
Born December 10, 1926, Philadelphia, Mississippi. Daughter of Homer Brown Turner and Lois Molpus Turner. Father ran a lumber mill. Mother died in 1930. One sister, Charlene Turner Snelling, three years younger than I, now lives in Monroe, Louisiana.

After my mother died, we lived with my maternal grandparents for a time. Their names were Neva Yarbrough and Richard Hezekiah Molpus. I am a part of a very large extended family and we are quite close still. After a couple of years, we had our own home and an aunt, Willie Anna Turner Catledge, my father's oldest sister, lived with us. She was the mother of the late Turner Catledge, who was editor of the New York Times. He writes about our extended Turner family in his book, My Life and the Times.

My Molpus family and my father were always involved in Mississippi politics. My grandfather and father always backed a governor on the "reform" side. My grandfather had gone to Democratic conventions in the 1920s and '30s. My father was a colonel on Governor Hugh White's staff and, I think, another governor later.

1944 Philadelphia High School
1946 Ward Belmont Junior College, Nashville, Tennessee
1948 Randolph-Macon Women's College, Lynchburg, Virginia
Majored in horseback riding (this is true) at Ward Belmont, in English at Randolph-Macon.

1948 - 1951: My first job was at the Hattiesburg American, Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The Randolph-Macon employment office got me the job. It paid $45 a week. I started out writing obituaries and "Country Correspondence" giving news from small towns. Later covered courts, fires, wrecks, luncheon clubs.

The editor, Andrew Harmon, liked to train young people, then send them on. He got me the job in New Orleans and told me it was time to move on.

1951-1965: Began work for the New Orleans States newspaper in 1951. This was the afternoon paper owned by the Times-Picayune Publishing Company. I started as a general assignment reporter. Later specialized as a sob sister, writing side stories on court cases. Did celebrity interviews, covered conventions, fires, wrecks and murders. First beat was covering schools. Handled the school page, which ran once a week. Had marvelous bosses--Frank Allen, managing editor, and Walter Cowan, city editor. They were very demanding and very supportive in their different ways. The operation was straight out of "The Front Page" every day.

People in New Orleans often think I was one of the pioneer women in journalism in New Orleans. Not true. This was after World War II, when women had proven they could handle the police beat and other assignments previously handled by men only. There were limitations. All editors were men except for the society editor. My predecessors as female political reporters were Ruth Sullivan, who covered City Hall for the States and Lee Davis, who covered City Hall for The Item, the other afternoon paper.

I began covering City Hall in 1954, Chep Morrison who had been elected as a reform mayor in 1946, was mayor. I began writing a Saturday political column during this time, taking over from Sullivan. Went to the Legislature for the first time in 1959. That was the year Governor Earl Long was committed to a mental institution during the legislative session. I covered this story with Emile Comar, the lead reporter on the story, after Long was released. I had begun doing political interviews before the 1959 legislative session. I once interviewed Earl Long wearing his "long handles" underwear.

Among memorable interviews at the States-Item: Frank Costello, the New York Mafia "boss of the bosses," was who was in charge of gambling in the nearby parish, Jefferson.

In the 1960s, covered the integration of New Orleans' public schools (1960) and did some work on the killing of the three civil rights workers in my hometown, Philadelphia, Mississippi. Seeing the little girls who integrated one New Orleans school spit on and threatened by a group of fishwives who were protestors was a pivotal experience. Covered other civil rights stories and once wound up in the midst of gunfire between the Klan and the Deacons, a groups of blacks who were armed to protect church people from the Klan. Later, when I was with the poverty program, I made a trip to Bogalusa to discuss a Head Start program with A.Z. Young, the civil rights leader there. A group of Deacons met me at the parish line and rode shotgun with me to Young's house. In 1964, I attended my first national political convention, the Democratic national convention in Atlantic City. This was the civil rights convention. It was a profound experience for me.

1965 - 1967: In 1965, went to work for Total Community Action (TCA), New Orleans' poverty program agency. I was educational specialist. I had responsibility for the Head Start program, which was operated by the Orleans Parish School Board. This was the hardest job I ever had, before or since, but also the most rewarding. Biggest reward: working with others to set up a medical and dental examination and treatment program that was singled out as one of the outstanding programs in the country.

1967 - 1978: Went to work for WDSU-TV. Covered politics. Worked there until 1978. Covered the administrations of Governors John McKeithen and Edwin Edwards and the legislature during this time. Had a commentary program called "Saturday Politics" once a week. Covered the administration of New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu (1970-78), first mayor to bring blacks into full participation in city government, and the election of Ernest N. "Dutch" Morial (1978-1986) the first black mayor. In 1969, won a Peabody Award for a series on city finances called "City in Crisis." I also covered national political conventions during this time. Most memorable: the 1976 Democratic convention in New York.

1978: Went to work for an alternative paper, as Figaro was called then. Continued to do the political commentary show "Saturday Politics" that I had started on WDSU-TV. Favorite story for Figaro: a scoop on the feud between brothers Chalin and Lee Perez that led to the break-up of their political empire in Plaquemines Parish and their loss of millions of dollars in oil lands that their father had stolen from the state. (The feud led to this, not the story.) Figaro was the most stimulating work environment I have ever had. I think I began to define myself as a writer then.

It was at Figaro that I began writing stories about members of my family and family occasions in Philadelphia. I have continued these columns at the Picayune. They are the most popular columns I write. Two most popular: one about my aunts, who were substitute mothers to me; another about picking up trash in my neighborhood.

1979: Began work with the Times-Picayune in August 1979. My work has largely been on my column, which runs Thursdays and Sundays in the paper. Did columns on the National Democratic Convention in Atlanta and the Republican National Convention in New Orleans in 1988. Had attended several national conventions before, starting with the 1964 convention in Atlantic City. Favorite convention: the Atlantic City one because of civil rights stories and the 1976 convention in New York. Also covered governor's campaigns in 1979, 1983, 1987, and mayors' elections from 1978 to 1990. Covered legislative sessions during those years.

I have now covered six governors--Earl Long, Jimmy Davis, John McKeithen, Edwin Edwards, David Treen, and Buddy Roemer. Have covered five New Orleans mayors--Chep Morrison, Victor H. Schiro, Moon Landrieu, Dutch Morial, and Sidney Barthelemy.

Most impressive political figure I ever interviewed--Eleanor Roosevelt. Most exciting political story--events after the commitment of Governor Earl Long. Most interesting governor--Edwin Edwards. Most interesting mayor--Dutch Morial, first black mayor of New Orleans. Best public official ever covered--Mayor Moon Landrieu.

Married Robert N. Kelso, rewrite man for the New Orleans States-Item in 1960. It was a very happy marriage except for his illness in the later years. He died in 1972.

Genealogy, gardening, reading trash novels, pets. Am working on a book about my Turner ancestors. The original immigrant family was Scotch-Irish, came to Charleston, South Carolina, from County Antrim in 1767. One of the three sons was a state senator. I also hope to write a book about New Orleans politics.
I am very close to my sister and her four children, and to my many cousins in the extended family.

Prepared by Iris Kelso
January 1991

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